Vice President Joe Biden likes babies but is less fond of Republicans, sometimes… (Steve Pope / AFP/Getty )
The always quotable Vice President Joe Biden took a shot at House Republicans the other day, referring to them as “this Neanderthal crowd” for having resisted speedy reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. His crack certainly offended Republicans. But, unknown to Biden, it also may have dissed a lot of Democrats.
As Biden may or may not know, scientific thinking about Neanderthals has evolved in recent years. Anthropologists now believe that the stocky, beetle-browed and weak-chinned hominids were a lot smarter and more artistically inclined than the stereotype Biden invoked.
A few years ago there was even a theory -- now apparently discredited -- that modern humans acquired genes for high intelligence from amorous encounters with Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago. In any event, it’s generally (if not unanimously) accepted that the two species “did it.”
In 2010, researchers announced that modern Europeans and Asians -- but not modern Africans -- share between 1% and 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals, who died out as a distinct species 40,000 years ago.
The most common explanation for the genetic overlap is that modern humans who had migrated from Africa encountered Neanderthals on their arrival in Eurasia and that at least some of them coupled with consequences. (An alternative theory is that the shared DNA can be traced back hundreds of thousands of years to a common African ancestor, not to recent “hybridization” in Eurasia.)
The genomics company 23andMe (the 23 is a reference to the number of chromosome pairs in the human genome) will provide its clients with an ancestry profile that can pick up on Neanderthal DNA. The writer Ann Gibbons was told: “You have an estimated 2.9% Neanderthal DNA, which puts you in the 89th percentile among Northern European 23andMe members.”
I don’t know Gibbons, but I doubt that she manifests any of the morphologies associated with Neanderthals. You can carry Neanderthal DNA without having a sloping brow, think forearms, a humongous nose or a receding chin.
Still, once you know Neanderthals are part of your lineage, you might take exception if a politician insults them -- or compares them to Republicans.
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